The Modern-Day Marco Polo Duo

By J. Wisniewski on Saturday, September 28, 2013
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“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” —Mark Twain

In A Nutshell

Starting in 1993, two Americans spent over two years and traveled 53,000 kilometers (33,000 mi) to retrace Marco Polo’s supposed route from Venice to China—a modern traveling feat never before accomplished without resorting to air travel to manage Central Asia’s most inhospitable regions.

The Whole Bushel

Denis Belliveau, a wedding photographer, and Francis O’Donnell, a former Marine, put history’s most famous travel writer to the test. The pair crossed the Eurasian continent and continually documented their experience against Polo’s 700-year-old “guidebook.”

Belliveau and O’Donnell started at the location of the very house that Marco Polo once lived in and would eventually travel via jeep, boat, foot, camels, and horses to eventually reach their final destination in China—where they were greeted by an angry mob.

It seems that, despite the many advantages afforded modern travelers, Belliveau and O’Donnell contended with a host of challenges foreign to Marco Polo, who crossed the Eurasian continent bearing tablets proclaiming the owner a “guest of the emperor.” That emperor, Kublai Khan, controlled nearly all the lands Polo traveled through, assuring the Italian safe passage.

Hundreds of years later, Marco Polo’s route took the two Americans through war-torn places like Afghanistan where Belliveau and O’Donnell were captured during a firefight. And while the two men eventually negotiated their release, they then got lost in sandstorms crossing the Taklamakan Desert. Either of these events would have been a very good reason to reconsider the whole trip. Instead, Belliveau made a pact with O’Donnell that, “under any conditions, no matter what, we were only coming back to the United States two ways—either dead or successful.”

This was a good idea, since they’d need that resolve during multiple detentions and interrogations by the KGB. Apparently, two Americans riding pack mules laden with video equipment across Eastern Afghanistan is cause for suspicion. Who knew?

That video equipment was worth it, though, as Belliveau and O’Donnell recorded an Afghanistan in between a violent war with the Soviets and the turbulent rule of the Taliban yet to come. In that respect as well, the two men succeeded precisely as Marco Polo had: by capturing and sharing a rare glimpse into a country often shrouded by its remoteness and, recently, violence.

Show Me The Proof

Marco Polo’s Guide to Afghanistan
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: Production Diary, Part I
In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: About the Film